On July 4, 1776, nobody in the newly independent country was eating hamburgers or hot dogs or ketchup. Ketchup didn't enter the cuisine until the 1800s, and the hamburgers and hot dogs on buns only got popularized around the turn of the last century.
Independence Day was marked quite differently in 1776 from the way it is today.
Food to Fuel an Active Life
For instance, Washington and his soldiers weren't chomping on watermelon. Rather, a soldier's daily ration included about a half pint of beans or peas, a pint of milk, a pound of beef, pork, or salted fish (yes, a pound), and a pound of bread. He also received six ounces of butter. It amounted to 3,000 to 4,000 calories—more than even many overweight people eat today.
It wasn't just soldiers who were eating so much food. Most people ate about that amount, too. Yet obesity wasn't rampant. "Daily life required a terrific calorie intake," says Sandra Oliver, a food historian in Islesboro, Maine. It was the "pre-leisure era," she notes. People walked a lot, rode horses, and expended a lot of calories—in their everyday jobs and chores.
No Fish Today
Today, "we think we're being terribly virtuous," Oliver remarks. But the main purpose of eating back then "was [to get] enough calories. For that very reason," she says, while modern people enjoy seafood because it is light, fish "was not preferred in 1776." People generally had fish about once a week.
What kind of fish did people eat? Perhaps some cod with salt pork scraps sprinkled on top to "give it a little more caloric punch," Oliver says. There was also plenty of herring and shad in the mid-Atlantic region.
Meat, particularly pork, was much more important than herring or any other fish, says Rachel Baum, site supervisor at Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia, because pigs were cheap to feed. They could be fattened for slaughter by giving them apple cores, potato peelings, and spoiled foods that humans or other animals couldn't eat. Wild game was often on the menu, too. Turkeys, pigeons, venison, rabbit, squirrel—Colonial roadkill, if you will.
Birth of the One-dish Meal
Most often meat was cooked together with vegetables in a big stew. Since the majority of the population was poor, they didn't have a lot of cooking equipment, explains Wendy Howell, supervisor of the Historic Foodways Program at Colonial Williamsburg. There wasn't one pot for one dish and a second pot for another, so making a stew was a way to cook all the food at once.
Stews or other hearty dishes were usually eaten at dinner, which took place around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon, during a break from working in the fields. Evening meals, or suppers, were "kind of the optional meal," Howell notes. And they were "very light."
Draining a Few Pints
"Everybody drank a lot of ale," points out John Askew, who oversees the four Colonial taverns at Williamsburg.
"It was a lot safer than drinking the water," Williamsburg's Howell says. You're boiling the water for beer, for instance, whereas plain water wasn't treated until the 1800s. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, Howell notes, there were outbreaks of " cholera , dysentery, typhoid , all of which are waterborne bacterial diseases."
How the Other Half Eats
Foods were more elaborate for the upper class in taverns, as well as at home. And the ingredients differed to some degree as well. For instance, in the common class, people ate corn on the cob during the summer. But Washington and Jefferson and their ilk probably did not. "If you could afford it, you really wanted wheat" products, says Howell. Corn was the common man's food.
Indeed, it was a staple. According to Baum of Claude Moore Colonial Farm, the breakfast of a typical farm family was a porridge made from ground corn, salt, and water boiled over the fire. And the universal bread was corn bread—"but not like today's," Baum makes clear. It was a hoecake or Johnny cake: a combination of corn meal, salt, and water that was mixed into a stiff dough and then baked in front of the fire or right in the ashes.
Dinner would usually include corn in some form, too. As one Colonial farmer purportedly described it, "I can say truthfully that [corn] was not used more than 30 days a month."
A Chicken (or Pig) in Every Pot
Interestingly, even though most farmers were relatively poor, "people had plenty to eat," says Baum. Indeed, Williamsburg's Askew observes that there was so much "virgin land" here that "coming from the mother country," the opportunities to secure food would have seemed quite abundant to our forefathers. As would "the selection of fruits and vegetables," adds Howell. The produce planted on the ample farmland included many different kinds of beans and squash; root vegetables such as potatoes and turnips; and leafy items like cabbage, collards, broccoli, and cauliflower.
The seasons were always an issue, however, which is why food preservation was so important not just for produce but for meat as well. Cows and pigs were often slaughtered in the fall and then stored and eaten over the next 12 months, Baum reports, and the foods cut from them were often preserved via salting. Pickling meats, along with items like beans, radishes, and cucumbers, allowed them to last, too, as did drying. Consider that while young corn was eaten off the cob in the summer, dried ground corn was used all year to make hoecakes and the like.
Enjoying the Meal
Colonial people lingered over the main meal. Dinner was "your television, your computer, the mall, the video games," Howell says. "In the 18th century, that was all centered around the dining table. Where else are you going to go?" she asks rhetorically. "You can't get up and call someone on the telephone."
Of course, people do tend to linger and keep company on holidays like today, often letting the afternoon barbecue or clambake stretch into the early evening. And along with chowing down on traditional staples such as watermelon, corn, and perhaps some beef, pork or fish, they also enjoy a beer—or two. In other words, while you're sitting around the back yard this afternoon, chances are strong that you're engaging in some of the very same dining practices of our Colonial forebears on the very first Independence Day. But don't forget to make like a Colonial and expend some calories in a long walk or swim.